Navigating Autism Research
December 01, 2015
By: Kara Hume, Ph.D.
The autism field is filled with articles, websites, books, and testimonials about the potential benefits of various treatments or intervention strategies. From diets to dolphin therapy to discrete trial training, the sheer volume of options along with their purported evidence can be overwhelming.
These resources and tips can help families and practitioners navigate those claims and make informed choices about intervention options.
Several independent research groups have recently conducted rigorous and thorough reviews of the autism literature and have identified a number of evidence-based, effective practices for children and young adults on the autism spectrum:
The Internet is filled with testimonials about “cures” or “miracle treatments” for individuals with ASD. These strategies can assist families and practitioners in sorting truth from fiction:
If the results are from an unpublished study or dissertation, website, pamphlet, or interview, however, there are no safeguards to ensure that the study was well-conducted (or that any study was conducted) and the results are meaningful. The same caution should be used with books since they typically do not follow the same peer-review process. Review the author’s credentials carefully.
Several online databases can help in finding reputable sources for claims related to intervention results, including PubMed, SCIRUS, ERIC, and the use of Google Scholar. These do not include unpublished work, Internet claims, or unfounded testimonials, allowing families and practitioners to “weed out” questionable sources.
In addition, ethical researchers disclose any perceived conflict of interest when earning money related to their research findings. For example, researcher Sally Rogers discloses in her work related to Early Start Denver Model, an early intervention model, that she earns money from the sales of a book on the same topic.
As part of OAR’s Life Journey Through Autism series, OAR and Danya International developed A Parent’s Guide to Research, which serves as a comprehensive guide to reading and understanding a journal article. This resource provides step-by-step support from the initial reading of the abstract to deciphering the results and their significance, including these tips to help you get started:
For most study designs, look for the term “statistically significant,” which indicates that there is a difference between the groups that is not likely due to chance, but likely due to the intervention studied. Often studies use a number of measures to gauge change across a number of skills. Note which outcomes were statistically significant, because an intervention may improve one skill area but not another.
Research in the field is growing and changing at a rapid pace, and it is difficult to keep up with the newest findings, as well as ensure that those findings are from a reputable source. With the support of the tips and resources included here, families and practitioners can navigate this process with additional confidence knowing that they are more discerning and more informed during the intervention selection process.
Kara Hume, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has worked in the field for 25 years as a classroom teacher, home program interventionist, consultant, trainer, and researcher. Her work is primarily focused on supporting individuals with ASD in school settings through intervention research, professional development for school staff, and enhancing the use of evidence-based practices in the classroom. She has the distinction of being the first OAR Graduate Research Grant recipient and Applied Research Grant recipient to serve on OAR’s Scientific Council.